"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Martin Luther King
Aug. 28, 1963
The headline on a recent Pittsburgh Post–Gazette editorial read: "Fifty years ago common Americans made history."
I know what the headline writer was trying to say, but, if I had been there, I would have suggested changing "common" to a different word — "average," perhaps, or "ordinary." Because what happened 50 years ago today was extraordinary. There probably isn't a better word to describe it. (Uncommon may be appropriate, but it doesn't seem adequate.)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial half a century ago today.
And, since last Friday or Saturday, there is no telling how many times portions of it have been cited by others — or, better still, the entire thing has been seen, thanks to the enduring miracle of film and video tape. There truly is a timeless quality to it.
Jenny Price of the University of Wisconsin–Madison News writes that "it still has an impact" on listeners today, and I'd have to agree with that. On several occasions, I have watched film of the speech with people who had never seen it before, and they never fail to be inspired by it.
It has been quoted countless times, probably most often on King's birthday but on other occasions as well — and I'm sure it will be quoted in hundreds, if not thousands, of commemorations of the speech's 50th anniversary.
Commemorations of King's speech have been under way at least since last weekend, and I am sure it already has been quoted many times in connection with that.
Thousands of people gathered to commemorate the occasion in Washington last weekend. I don't know if they listened to a recording of the speech or watched a video tape of it, but its message was very much on their minds.
On this day in 1963, King was the last of many speakers on what was a sweltering summer day in Washington, and he was introduced as "the moral leader of our nation." Most Americans probably knew who he was by the time he delivered that speech during the March on Washington. Those who didn't almost certainly knew who he was after he gave it.
I don't know how many people will be in Washington today. I do know that a lot will be going on there, and this milestone anniversary seems sure to draw a crowd at least as big as the one that heard King speak 50 years ago. As the Associated Press reported, "Marchers began arriving early Saturday. ... By midday, tens of thousands had gathered on the National Mall."
And that was more than four days ago.
The speech is known, as I say, as the "I Have a Dream" speech, and it is called that as if it was written and shaped and crafted lovingly for weeks, if not months, before it was given, which much of it was, but the truly remarkable thing about it is that the most frequently quoted portion of it was largely improvised. It was not part of the prepared text.
"That part of his speech was an idea King had used in previous speeches," writes the Washington Post. "King, an experienced preacher by then, added it as he sensed the crowd's mood.
"As the final speaker on the long summer day, King wanted to leave the crowd revved up. To do that, he began repeating himself again."
That, the Post informs readers, is a speaker's device known as anaphora, and it can be effective. In the hands of a gifted orator, it can be very effective.
After all these years, the speech really needs no additional hype. In the last half century, it may have been quoted more frequently than any other speech from any period in American history — more often than John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you" or FDR's "nothing to fear but fear itself" or even Lincoln's "four score and seven years ago."
As the century drew to a close, the speech was voted the top speech of the 20th century.
"For King," wrote Theodore White, "1963 was the year to move. ... [B]ecause it was a century from the Emancipation Proclamation and Negroes were still held in servile condition; because it was almost a decade from the Supreme Court's 1954 decision on school desegregation and the glacial pace of desegregation had been tragically disappointing; because all over Africa in the previous decade black men had reached self–expression under their own leadership; because ... the movement he led as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had found, as he call[ed] it, 'its undergirding philosophy' of nonviolence."
There was an interesting dynamic that could be seen at work in the black community in those days. Part of black America believed that patience really is a virtue, and patience would yield lasting results, but there were those who said patience had produced nothing, and they urged violence as a way of achieving what nonviolence seemed to have failed to achieve.
But King did not advocate violence when he spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago today — or at any other time in his life. His towering oratory, both 50 years ago today and throughout his life, sought to elevate all who heard it.
And his words continued to elevate, even after, about five years later, violence took King's life.
That was a truly dark time in America's history — a time when, ironically, King's message of nonviolent protest was briefly eclipsed by greater violence in America's cities as black Americans, even many who had supported a nonviolent approach, reacted to King's murder by lashing out in a blind rage.
But, in many ways in the last half–century, things have changed. Probably not as quickly as many hoped, but that is simply human nature, which King understood. Change comes slowly but surely — or, as King himself put it, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Historians disagree over whether King or someone else said that first, but it probably does not matter. It was a reflection of what King believed and consistently advocated.
I grew up in the South, and, in my then–small Arkansas hometown, I remember seeing segregation. It wasn't as pervasive in Arkansas as it was in states in the Deep South, but it was there.
I was too young to read so I don't know if there were signs that said "white only" or "colored only" above drinking fountains or on restroom doors, but I remember seeing blacks confined to a single section in the balcony of the town's only movie theater, and, when I started school, my first–grade class was the first incoming group in the history of my hometown to be integrated, even though it was much more than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Change does come slowly; nevertheless, as the New York Post wrote in a recent editorial on the anniversary of King's speech, "There's no denying the progress that has been made since 1963 — beginning with the fact that a black man is now president of the United States, something King himself likely never expected to see."
With reservations, I agree with that, but I also believe that one of the great failings of the Obama presidency — and I think history ultimately will agree with me — is that he has been preoccupied with electoral success and has used race primarily for political gain rather than to unite alienated groups.
Perhaps that would have been an unintended consequence of electing the first black president, no matter who he/she turned out to be. Maybe the first black president needed to be re–elected to thoroughly establish the historical credibility of a black president — most presidents, after all, have not been elected twice, and re–election is generally regarded as one of the marks of a successful presidency — and that, once that particular color line or glass ceiling (or whatever the current popular terminology for it may be) was shattered, the next black president could get down to the serious business of leading.
Perhaps that is how history works. I don't know.
I do know that today, when a member of any group is not permitted to eat where others eat or shop where others shop, it becomes a national news story, and the owner of the business is targeted for public ridicule and shame.
That is progress. Or is it?
It is also a national story when a celebrity admits using a racial slur decades ago and is viciously attacked as a "racist."
I definitely do not believe that is progress — I don't know anyone who can justify everything he/she said or did 30 years ago — and I don't believe King would think it was progress, either. His vision called for equal treatment for all, not preferential treatment for some and discriminatory treatment for others. He saw that all around him, and he knew it wasn't fair.
(Here is an example from my own life. It may or may not be relevant. I'll leave that to you to decided.
(My father went back to school at the age of 48 to study architecture. Up to that time, he had been fulfilling his parents' vision for him to be a teacher, but they were both gone, and he made the decision to study the subject that really had been his first love. I remember asking him about that once, and he replied, "Why should I commit the rest of my life to a decision that was made by an 18–year–old?"
(I think King would have a similar approach to someone who used a derogatory word three decades ago but has not made a habit of it.)
Regardless of which group benefits and which does not, any kind of preferential treatment contradicts the message of King's life. I think he would see swapping discriminatory treatment of groups not as moving forward but more of a lateral move — if not a step backward.
As a Southerner, I have frequently acknowledged the terrible things that happened here before I was born and even when I was a child, but I also know that many things have changed. There is still work to be done, but it was never the work of this region alone. Because of its more notorious past, the South repeatedly has been made the scapegoat for a nation's sins.
As the Post says of the changes in America since King gave his most famous speech,
"[he] would be pleased, but we doubt he'd be content to leave it at that. As he told those marchers: 'We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York has nothing for which to vote.' In other words, civil rights was not exclusively a Southern issue."
Over the years, I have had the impression that the South has been America's whipping boy for racism for which people in every region share guilt.
It is just (and I'm about to use a word here that one never hears associated with racism, but I'm going to use it, anyway, in the hope that you, dear reader, will grasp the meaning beneath the surface) a more honest kind of racism in the South.
I'll grant you that honest is a strange word to use in connection with racism, but, please, hear me out. I'm not saying that racism is, in any way, good or honest, but I am speaking about the ways racism is expressed.
My sense has been that there are many people in the North and the West and the East who are every bit as racist as anyone I ever encountered in the South — and I have been to most of the states east of the Mississippi River and several of the states west of it — but they keep their racism hidden, cloaked in the language they use and policies that they say are the same for everyone but really aren't.
I teach in a community college these days. I have many different kinds of students in my classrooms, and I can tell from what I overhear them saying to each other that they take it for granted that they will be allowed to eat in any eatery they choose or shop in any store they choose — or attend any school they choose.
I've been teaching at this community college for more than three years now, and, frankly, I originally expected to hear stories about students (or their friends or relatives) being denied the right to vote, but I haven't overheard anyone talking about that.
Perhaps, I have pondered, young people don't vote with any more frequency than they did when I was a young person. But then I think, that can't be true, not when you consider the credit that young voters received for the two Obama elections.
So maybe their silence on the subject means they take the right to vote for granted. If anyone was prevented from voting, that might spark a conversation, and, I conclude, if I don't hear anything, that must be seen as a sign of progress toward the fulfillment of the American vision, right? Well, perhaps, but, nevertheless, as the Post writes, "we still have a ways to go."
I still hear stories from some of my students about being stopped by the police for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin, and I know there is still work to be done. Profiling is only one aspect of it. As a crime–solving tool, profiling is essential, but, when misapplied, whether deliberately or not, it can breed distrust among people it is intended to protect.
"When we look at the high unemployment rates for African–Americans in our city, for example, or the way our public schools are failing our African–American children," says the Post, "we know the civil–rights challenges are real and continuing.
"Fifty years after King's dream, we should also have learned that none of these challenges are beyond the ability of an America serious about resolving them."
Joshua DuBois of Newsweek writes, "Instead of being in a state of perpetual struggle, an endless existential march, I believe there is far more evidence to support the idea that we are right on the verge of Zion. And the only thing that will stop us from getting there is the hopeless belief that we can't."
Here is what I believe: The reason why any progress has been made in the last 50 years was Americans were mostly united, not divided, when it happened.
It was with a shared sense of purpose that Americans have risen to any occasion and met every challenge — so far.
"United we stand, divided we fall" is as old as the Scriptures (albeit in somewhat different language), which may be why King, a minister, recognized its value for effecting true and meaningful change while most politicians do not.
King's dream is not dead. It has not been completely fulfilled, but enough of it has been accomplished to make Americans confident that we are moving in the right direction.
Yes, there is still work to be done, but America has always been a work in progress.